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City signs: mixed messages

After tightening restrictions on private signage, the city wants to make an exception for commercial signs.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. April 16, 2015
All along Main Street, signs beckon visitors to businesses. Photo by David Conway
All along Main Street, signs beckon visitors to businesses. Photo by David Conway
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At the April 6 City Commission meeting, the board approved new sign regulations it had asked for five months earlier, banning all private signs from the public right of way.

Then, commissioners immediately asked staff to draft new sign regulations, concerned that the rules on the books might negatively impact businesses.

The moves might seem contradictory, but the commission’s first priority was bringing a close to a feud between a downtown storeowner and a legal consultant — and avoiding the legal pitfalls that might have come with it. Upset by Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association signs discouraging panhandling, legal consultant Michael Barfield posted his own signs attacking downtown businesses as a form of protest.

Under the existing regulations, neither party’s signs were technically considered signs — as it stood, the rules only applied to commercial signs. The city moved to close that loophole, approving the new regulations in a 4-1 vote. Barfield, who has been involved with lawsuits against the city on multiple occasions, was satisfied with the results.

Ron Soto, the president of the merchants group and the person behind the anti-panhandling signs, was not as pleased. His concerns were not related to his own signs, but rather the signs of other businesses.

“What I am concerned about is, the way this ordinance is written, every single A-frame sign that’s out there is illegal,” Soto said.

Those signs, a common presence on downtown streets, are often used to advertise daily specials at restaurants and sales at other businesses. 

As City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out to the commission, speakers such as consultant Robert Gibbs have come to the city and extolled the value of these signs, saying they add variety to downtown and benefit pedestrians.

As it happens, those signs were also already illegal. Before the vote, the code banned commercial signage from the public right of way. City Attorney Robert Fournier said the presence of signs along Main Street and elsewhere was a matter of code enforcement, which could be stepped up to avoid any issues once the new rules are in place.

Fournier says he considers the issues with commercial and political signage to be separate, and that he didn’t examine commercial regulations when revising the code. He’s unaware of whether it’d be possible to exempt commercial signage from the restrictions in place, but the commission directed him to look into the matter.

“It may be an uphill battle to get there,” Fournier said. “I can’t tell you that it would be permissible to do.”

Businesses are upset by the prospect of potentially losing their signs. Ralph Perna, owner of Clasico, said he understood the city’s concerns, but thought it was unfair that business owners would be punished as a result of an unrelated spat. 

“I just think that that’s unreasonable,” Perna said. “I think we all have to work together, and I think unity works much better than division.”

Even as the commission prepares to formally adopt the new regulations, it’s hopeful that it can find a way to keep merchants such as Perna happy. Without an exemption for commercial signage, Perna is concerned that activity downtown will take a turn for the worse.

“We wouldn’t want downtown to go in the direction it did 15 years ago,” Perna said. “We need to have that vibrancy down here, and we need some type of support from the city for that as well.”



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